The institution was already a leader in online education when Emma (not her real name) took on the new role at her university as the head of online learning. But the university’s new leadership wanted to take it to the next level and make online education a defining feature of the institution.
She was the right person to lead the charge. A member of the faculty, she had recently spent several years as a high-level administrator, building a wide base of support. She was smart and personable.
Her first step, like all good diplomats, was “consultation;” to sit down with as many people in the institution as possible. Between meetings, she plowed through the university’s online courses.
A Rough Start
She was surprised by what she learned during her review. The few well-designed courses were the exception. Not many presented a coherent set of learning outcomes. Assessments were unimaginative; mostly online versions of classroom assignments. Content regularly included slides from classroom lectures, which obviously added little value.
When video was used, it was typically just unscripted webcam lectures, which were difficult for many students to follow. (One video apparently resembled an outtake from The Blair Witch Project). The quality of written content was uneven. Materials from publishers were plugged in randomly. Rich media was largely absent and many graphics appeared to be from copyright-protected sources. And despite the capacity of technology to capture and track learner performance, the use of learning analytics was limited.
A Classroom Model
Her experience was not unique among brick-and-mortar institutions in North America. The design and development of online higher education courses in traditional, non-profit institutions has followed the organizational, financial and distribution methods of traditional classroom education.
Online education remains essentially a cottage industry, in which lone instructors are asked to be responsible for the bulk of online course design and development. Consequently, people with limited time, the wrong set of skills, and insufficient compensation build courses. And because the course materials are used for only one course at a single institution, investment is limited to what can be recouped through tuition from a single course delivered for a few semesters.
A Way Forward
As Emma saw it, in order to improve the quality of course design, faculty needed to spend less time trying to create their own courses from scratch and more time on high-level strategic matters – mapping the curriculum, course-related research, defining learning objectives, and providing meaningful support for learners.
She believed a greater percentage of the course content should come from other sources. By relying more heavily on existing course materials, the cost of course development would decline and quality would rise.
Her job was to make it easy for faculty to draw on “the best available” instructional resources – whether it came from other universities, consortia, vendors or open education resources (OER). Faculty would continue to craft their own instructional content and activities, but only where they could produce material that was superior in value to what was available elsewhere.
Emma’s plans ran headlong into what many who work in online higher education learned long ago; there is often considerable pushback from some faculty on the idea of relying more heavily on instructional media and activities from outside sources. “They feel the need to be using their own stuff,” as she put it to me.
The “my stuff” logic is a by-product of two overlapping origins:
Faculty are hired and promoted for being experts. It is this expertise that defines them as “more than teachers” of someone else’s curriculum, and justifies, in part, their relative prestige and autonomy. The teaching function of the occupation model is thought to flow from the research function. And for this research work to be of value, it must be original. It follows, then, that what they teach should be original, as well. Hence, the pushback.
It stems, secondly, from an understandable anxiety that arises from suggesting to faculty that they abdicate part of their current responsibilities to someone else. Many in academia have viewed the rise of educational technology as a threat to their labor market value. This was clearly expressed in the 1990s by critics like David Noble who argued that education technology was a “Trojan horse” that was designed to weaken and ultimately replace faculty labor.
” . . . faculty have much more in common with the historic plight of other skilled workers than they care to acknowledge. Like these others, their activity is being restructured, via the technology, in order to reduce their autonomy, independence, and control over their work and to place workplace knowledge and control as much as possible into the hands of the administration. As in other industries, the technology is being deployed by management primarily to discipline, deskill, and displace labor.” (link)
More recently, similar sentiments have been expressed about MOOCs. Gianpiero Petriglieri (great name, huh?), associate professor organizational behavior at INSEAD, described MOOCs as a tool of “academic colonialism,” whereby more prestigious institutions become the source of curriculum for less prestigious institutions.
“It is far more similar to colonialism, that is, disruption brought about by ‘the policy and practice of a power in extending control over weaker people or areas’ and simultaneously increasing its cultural reach and control of resources.” (link)
In response to the use of MOOCs at San Jose State University, philosophy professors wrote, “Let’s not kid ourselves; the administrators at the CSU are beginning a process of replacing faculty with cheap online education.” (link)
Of course, most professionals in higher education don’t hold these views. In technology, they see an opportunity to redefine their roles in ways that allow them to focus on higher-level activities, while providing students with the best possible experience. Faculty that have experience teaching online education are aware that course development is highly labor intensive, that compensation is insufficient, and that current practices significantly limits the type of instructional media that we can make available to students. They’ve learned first-hand that new models of instruction – including greater use of shared resources – doesn’t mean that faculty are made redundant; only that they can better focus their time and talents on those parts of the course in which they are most invested.
Nevertheless, the state of affairs in online higher education has clung too long to its conventions. Online higher education can offer students much higher quality experiences if we seek out new approaches to course design and development. And in the process, slow down the rapid climb in operating costs and improve learning outcomes. But we need the political will to make it happen.
In Part 2, we’ll look at the concept of the “best available;” how it relates to scale and costs in higher education, and what this new approach might entail.
Emma, meanwhile, has gone back to the drawing board.